Chemistry is not typically perceived as sustainable and is not prominent (or sometimes even present) in sustainability initiatives. As a chemist, I typically attend chemistry or chemical education conferences due to the nature of my work. The 2017 AASHE Conference & Expo was my second conference where I worked with a group of faculty and professionals to put together a session on our work in green chemistry and to advocate that chemistry and chemistry departments have a place at the table when it comes to campus sustainability initiatives.
In 2015, we presented to a small number of attendees in our session on our experiences using green chemistry to promote sustainability in chemistry courses and programs. Despite our own enthusiasm for our work, there was not the response we were hoping for from the small number of attendees who attended our session during that meeting.
So, with a slightly different group and updated content, we tried again for the 2017 meeting. We were happy to find a full room of attendees at our session (Featuring the Chemistry Department in Campus Sustainability Initiatives: Best Practices in the Lab and Curriculum) and thrilled at the response. Perhaps one of the best comments from the attendees was from man in the back who said “sometimes I find that sustainability initiatives are window dressing, but what you are talking about can really make a difference!”. That’s exactly how we feel as well.
My co-presenters, Erika Daley from the organization My Green Lab and Dr. Jane Wissinger, a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, provided evidence that green chemistry in practice can make a significant difference on campuses and in scientific research. Green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that have reduced impacts on humans and the environment. And, if you are like many people, you have a general aversion to the term “chemistry” or “chemical” and you may have the perception that all chemicals are bad and that chemistry can not possibly be performed sustainably. As a chemist, I see the world in chemical building blocks. They make up the foundation of all of what we use in our daily lives from medicines to plastics. From my perspective, there is no such thing as chemical-free. Even that water you are drinking is a chemical, H2O.
The way we practice chemistry and create chemical products has traditionally not been sustainable and today is still the source of much pollution and hazardous waste generation, as well as energy consumption. However, there is a growing movement and a growing demand for greener chemical products and processes. This movement has been building within the chemical industry and also within large brands who are creating greener chemicals policies, such as Target’s new chemical policy announced early in 2017 that specifically calls for greener chemical innovations where alternatives do not already exist. In fact, a 2011 Pike Research report indicated that the greener chemicals market is a growing market and will be nearly a $20 billion industry by 2020.
Academia is shifting towards greener chemistry as well – and, in my opinion, might be the biggest catalyst for change towards green chemistry. Green chemistry in practice in higher education institutions can make significant reductions in hazardous waste disposal, energy consumption, hazardous chemical use – all resulting in cost savings and increasing safety and efficiency. Perhaps most importantly, green chemistry can prepare the next generation of students to enter careers in the chemistry profession with the skills to design chemical products that have reduced human and environmental impacts. So, if you are a sustainability professional, or a faculty member from a department other than chemistry, then consider reaching out to your chemistry department and inquiring whether or not they are implementing green chemistry practices.
In our session at the 2017 conference, we were happy to hear comments such as “how do we get the message out more broadly to the AASHE community?”. Our suggestions are to reach out within your own campus to your chemistry departments and find out what they are doing that is a good example of greener chemistry – and then find out ways for elevating that work and encouraging them to do more. Tap into students who are wonderful changes agents on campuses and who can advocate for greener labs or run solvent-substitution campaigns to build awareness of safer choices within the research labs. If this interest continues to grow within the AASHE community, we plan to be back again to continue the conversation at future conferences. It’s a great place to find like-minded professionals and faculty. We hope that next time we’ll have a growing number of chemistry faculty and professionals joining in on the conversation and sitting at the table discussing how to support and grow sustainability through the chemical sciences.